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Nkima Speaks

Telepathy and the Writing Methods of Edgar Rice Burroughs

David A. Adams

Burroughs had an uncanny story telling ability. He was an unconscious writer, but not without literary training since his rather rigorous education in Latin and Greek provided him with a good foundation in the use of the English language. Even though he always claimed to be non-literary in his intentions, there is no doubt that he was a marvelous writer.

I believe that Burroughs gave a good deal of thought to his methods of writing, but most of this musing probably occurred on a subconscious level. He was so good that he could dictate complete stories as they flowed from his mind and voice. The careful preparation he sometimes did for his novels, such as constructing maps and charts and lists of characters merely served to “jump start” his innate creative juices. I think he knew where he was going with a story as much as any author does, but he had the great writer’s gift of recognizing the felicitous turn of events fictional characters sometimes take seemingly on their own as the story progresses. He knew when things were going right and went with the creative flow, and the fact that his stories were successful by this method must have come as a surprise to him time after time.

There is a certain amount of “practice makes perfect” in this method, yet it is haphazard at best. Since Burroughs made his living by writing, he wanted all of his stories to be marketable. He must have wondered why this was not always the case.

Burroughs read widely, but he seems not to have been strongly influenced by modern literary trends as he progressed with his career. That is, he never became consciously literary, which is at least part of the charm of his stories. He remained a beginner in a sense, and each one of his stories must have come to him as a kind of miracle “out of nothing” so to speak. Perhaps much of his repetition of characters and plots were due to this method of writing.

This is not to say that he did not work hard at his craft, for we know that Burroughs labored like a demon. He wrote on a schedule and was proud of his daily word count. He just didn’t know where it was all coming from, and this fact must have been disturbing at times.

I believe that ERB’s tentative mention of “telepathy” among the Barsoomians had to do with his thoughts about his own writing process even as he was writing his first novel, “A Princess of Mars.” It was something that slipped out of his mind as he was writing, almost as though he were observing himself in the process of writing. “Where is all this coming from? Could this be a form of telepathy?”

Later, Burroughs was stuck with something he had almost written inadvertently. He was busy observing the “I” of his John Carter, mixing and transposing his own past and present with a fictional character in a tale that he wondered about even as he wrote it down.

In 1940, when Burroughs was working at jump starting his career again, he took up the same sort of theme with his Tangor stories. However, this time he was aware of the “ghostly fingers” at the keyboard. They were as mysterious as ever to him, but by now he accepted this fact. This strange form of telepathy or automatic writing had become his tried and true method. He played with the fact that his stories came from somewhere “Beyond the Farthest Star.” It was his valuable gift and had been a friend to him for many years. Burroughs himself was the ghost in the machine, the genie of the bottle, the torn and dust manuscript that appeared in the tomb of his own skull cave.

Written for Tangor on

September 12, 2000

8:30 p.m.

More thoughts about the Tangor (Poloda) stories:

It is interesting that Burroughs started writing a new series in a serious vein after doing the Carson Series. It seems that most of his late work is informed by a light- hearted humor, but Tangor was a kind of pulling in the reins again.

You can be sure that Tangor would have been given a beast to ride on Tonos instead of that ubiquitous airplane. It is significant that Tangor didn’t find his true love with Yamoda, but neither did Tarzan in the first novel. Given ERB’s unhappy experiences in love, I wonder if he might have found someone on Tonos to go on long horseback rides with like in Girl from Hollywood.

ERB’s later novels in a series tend to be more idyllic, although they continue to drift from adventure to adventure. I suppose there would have been a set of secondary characters to fall in love on Tonos as well. I wonder if Burroughs would have ever be able to write about love in the same way after Florence?

I just think that it’s a shame that ERB didn’t get the chance to develop Tangor more. Of course, this could be said about Tarzan as well. What happened to Korak and Meriem? Could John Carter have turned into Tennyson’s “Ulysses?” Maybe someday soon I will take up my pen and find out the answers to some of these questions.

All of this comes from thinking about the work of one writer for six years straight. Where do I find the time for all this? What else is there?


9:00 p.m.